I’m not ashamed to admit that as a kid, I found this film pretty spooky. I mean, what kind of PBS movie has the word “die” in it? As it turns out, Dies Drear is someone’s name — a 19th-century, distinctly John Brown-esque white abolitionist who was killed helping slaves escape, although rumor has it that his ghost still haunts his Ohio home. (This, of course, raises the question of why someone in the North would be killed for helping slaves, but hey, who am I to argue with history?)
Cut to present day, and Howard Small (Howard Rollins, Jr., pre-crack) prepares to move his family into the old house, having just gotten a teaching job nearby. Eldest son Thomas (Shavar Ross, of Diff’rent Strokes fame) doesn’t want to go and clings to his creepy great-grandmother (Frances Foster), who, rather than reassure him that all will be OK, plants seeds of terror, conveying pearls of wisdom like, “Roasting chicory is the best way to ward off calamity!”, “Beware of omens that come in threes!”, and “Watch out for triangles!”…thus ensuring that Thomas will forever remain a virgin. Unfortunately for us, he’s also the star, meaning we have to put up with his whiny wussitude for two hours.
Sure enough, as soon as he sets foot inside the house, he wants to leave. His “Dudley Sense” tells him that something’s wrong. Not helping matters are two neighborhood kids, Mac and Pesty (Kadeem Hardison and Tichina Arnold in early roles), who warn him not only about the ghost of Dies Drear, but also about weirdo caretaker Pluto (Joe Seneca), who is supposedly some sort of demon. Straying outside later that night, Thomas finds out the hard way about Pluto, who rises from out of the ground to snatch (i.e., grope) the little “trespasser.” Thomas escapes, but begins to notice weird things around the house: secret passages, hooded figures, ghostly images in the mirror and the words “GET OUT” scribbled on the wall. He and his dad set out to uncover the mystery of Dies Drear, leaving mama Small (Gloria “The Oracle” Foster) at home to suckle little brother Kenneth.
Suffice it to say, The House of Dies Drear turns out to be more Scooby Doo than Amityville Horror, but it does have some surprisingly adult content — including slavery, divorce, child abuse, murder, Afro-centric quotations of Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry and I could swear in one scene that the parents were about to get busy. It’s also — eek — educational, teaching us about the Underground Railroad and the conditions that slaves had to endure (Apparently, they had it bad.). Interestingly, the all-black cast would go on to build quite a horror resume: Eugene Clark and Gene Mack in Land of the Dead (as Big Daddy and butler Knipp, respectively), Kadeem Hardison in Vampire in Brooklyn and Def By Temptation, Moses Gunn in Firestarter and Amityville II, Clarence Williams III in Tales from the Hood, Joe Seneca in The Blob and yes, even Shavar Ross in Friday the 13th Part V.